Family: The Key to Human Life and Dignity

A bedtime story I am currently living and working with at-risk youth in the city of Detroit in a transitional living facility. The children I mentor on a daily basis all come from very different racial, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds. Although each child’s story of their dissent into homelessness is both unique and tragic, there is one common thread binding them all: the collapse of the family.

One boy, Calvin, related the story of his father abandoning their family at a young age. His mother found it difficult to provide for both of them through welfare alone. She began dating another man who assisted in providing for her and Calvin. When this man began abusing his mother, Calvin attacked him, doing his best to protect her. The boyfriend became resentful towards Calvin because Calvin continually challenged his authority. Calvin’s mother was eventually forced to choose between kicking Calvin out of the house or losing her boyfriend and breadwinner. Calvin’s mother valued the protection and financial security of her boyfriend more than her relationship with her son. Calvin became homeless as a result.

Scenarios like this make the primacy of defending the family clear. When human beings like Calvin are treated as objects to be discarded, it is evident that individual selfishness has overpowered any moral obligations towards others. Yet these notions of radical individualism are not limited to Detroit – they pervade the American milieu, subsequently reducing marriage and the family to mere contractual obligations between individuals. In reality, this radical individualism is a myth. No human being can will themselves into existence; every individual’s life is –ideally–instead a result of the culmination of love between two individuals. Thus, the proper contextualization of individualism requires an inherent relationality in the institutions of both marriage and the family, because it is only through these relationships that individuals come to exist.  When the self-centered approach toward marriage and family encouraged by individualism is adopted, the result is the widespread breakdown of not only fundamental societal institutions, but also the dignity and worth of the human person.

  Most would agree that a proper understanding of human dignity entails a respect for human life from conception until natural death, including the alleviation of suffering during life due to poverty. Few realize, however, that the dissolution of the family is definitively linked to poverty. United States Census data shows that only 11 percent of children in married households live in poverty, while children in single-mother and single-father households experience poverty rates of 48 and 22 percent, respectively. Calvin’s story of homelessness serves as a testament to this fact. The root cause of this situation was a fatherless family, and the poverty spurred by this further contributed to the breakdown of the relationship of a mother and her son. Respect for human life and dignity, it seems, is inseparable from the welfare of the institutions of marriage and the family.

            I have heard countless stories from the members of the shelter about how the absence of fathers in their lives or a disagreement with their families has led to their homelessness. Much of their homelessness is caused as a result of the American spirit of rugged individualism. American adherence to radical individualism is antithetical to the existence of important social institutions like marriage and the family, ultimately posing a deeper threat to the respect for life and human dignity. Therefore, the preservation of these fundamental social institutions is integral to defending and supporting a culture of life and human dignity, not only with respect to life in the womb, but also in easing the suffering for impoverished and downtrodden individuals like Calvin.

Robert Burkett is a WYA North America member